Evolving education

A geology classroom at the University of Indiana

A geology classroom at the University of Indiana

Over time, both education and scientific pursuit became more standardized. Political and legal action created state and city systems, resulting in various types of schools, an emphasis on certain educational topics, and support of specific scientific texts. As the sciences became more professionalized, the divide between how men and women participated widened. While previously the quality of education in the home had been similar to that in school, now the new nature of science required more equipment, laboratory experimentation, and research. Men were required to have more qualifications to advance in their field: university degrees, society memberships, and paid positions. Each of these requirements created multiple obstacles for women pursuing a professional career. University authorities were resistant to the notion of women in higher education: what was the point? In the end, women would be expected to work at home and their education would be a waste of time and resources. By the end of the 19th century, women’s and coeducational colleges had opened their doors, allowing more women to enter the sciences professionally, rather than just avocationally.

Professor Florence Bascom leads her students on a geology field excursion, 1913. Bryn Mawr College Archives

Professor Florence Bascom leads her students on a geology field excursion, 1913.

Bryn Mawr College Archives

In that respect, the founding of a number of elite women’s colleges, such as Vassar (1861), Smith (1871), and Bryn Mawr (1885) was significant; not only did they educate women in the sciences, but they hired them as well. Yet women who attended university could do so only thanks to their educations, financial means, and families who generally supported intellectual pursuits, and for graduates, higher degrees did not necessarily translate to a desirable job.  As John H. Raymond, president of Vassar College from 1864 to 1878, said, “Physiology, chemistry, physics, and the various branches of natural history—have all of them a womanly side, and may be taught throughout, with reference to practical application, in women’s acknowledged domain.” Positions considered suitable for women scientists were often low-level staff and service positions, or situated in women’s colleges or in disciplines like home economics. Most employers, whether governmental or institutional, paid lower salaries to women, refused to hire married women, and offered few opportunities for advancement.